A girl and her father stand with some 200,000 immigrants’ rights activists flood the National Mall to demand comprehensive immigration reform on March 21, 2010 in Washington DC (Photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Shutterstock.com)

 

In the short time that Jordan Cunnings has been working as an Equal Justice Works fellow, she’s seen big changes. Cunnings is counseling immigrant parents to take action to keep their U.S.-born children out of foster care if those parents should be detained.

Working since September 2015 at Public Counsel in Los Angeles as an EJW fellow sponsored by ALM Media, Cunnings has represented detained immigrant parents whose children are in California’s dependency system, seeking the parents’ release and the children’s return. (ALM is The Recorder’s parent company.)

Equal Justice Works is a nonprofit that trains law students and lawyers to represent underserved communities and causes. The group’s two-year fellowship program, supported by ALM, provides funding to public interest attorneys who tackle innovative legal projects, working to close the justice gap. Cunnings is one of 56 fellows from the class of 2015.

Cunnings spoke with The Recorder about her fellowship and how President Donald Trump’s policies have affected her work. Her answers are edited for brevity and clarity.

Jordan Cunnings. (Courtesy photo)



Jordan Cunnings. (Courtesy photo)

When you started your fellowship, what were the goals of your project?

The idea behind my fellowship project was to meet a gap in the legal services being provided to detained immigrants. Specifically, my sponsoring organization, Public Counsel, had been working with parents in detention who were having collateral child custody issues arising either alongside or because of their time in immigration detention. Detention work is so under-resourced, no one had the capacity to tackle that issue head-on. The goal was to have someone in the Los Angeles area detention centers specifically working with these parents and attempting to provide not only representation in immigration proceedings, but also assistance with and representation of the consequences of their detention on their parental rights.

Could you explain the way that the immigration system might create child custody issues?

There are three different scenarios and three different types of cases I’ve seen. One is where parents are detained while they already have an ongoing dependency court case. They are detained, and it affects and prevents their ability to participate in the ongoing dependency court case. The other scenario I run into a lot are parents seeking asylum at the U.S. border and they have their U.S.-born children. There’s not a place for their children to safely live when they are detained. Those children are placed in foster care or with temporary caregivers. The third scenario is where the temporary caregiver situation—something changes when the parent is detained, and the temporary caregiver can’t care for the children, or it’s an unsafe situation for the children.

Immigration is a hot topic right now because of President Trump’s executive orders to expand immigration detention programs and to bar travelers from certain Middle Eastern nations. How have these matters affected your fellowship?

Even before the new administration, there were people in detention who I believed should not be in detention: asylum seekers; folks with really minor criminal histories; and folks whose rights as parents were impacted in this very negative way. Under President Trump, we’ve seen the situation worsen and the categories of people being detained and sought for immigration enforcement are broader. The risk is greater for people in the community who six months ago we wouldn’t say were at risk. Now those folks are really vulnerable and terrified. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has also now been much less willing to release people based on these child custody circumstances.

What should immigrant parents do now to make sure, if they are detained, their U.S. citizen children don’t end up in foster care?

It’s definitely a time to have hard conversations as a family and make a safety plan. In California, there’s something called a temporary caregiver authorization that is pretty easy to complete and basically allows a trusted adult to make school-related, transportation and limited medical decisions for minor children. What we are recommending is folks to identify a safe person or safe family who would be willing to care for children in an emergency and have those documents ready as a backup. Those precautions usually will be enough to keep the children, hopefully, in a safe place so parents can make permanent arrangements.

What are your employment plans when your fellowship is over? How will the experience impact your career path?

I’ve learned a lot about these ancillary family law issues—the ways the person’s immigration rights case can affect their rights in other cases. I plan to continue practicing immigration law, but it’s been helpful to me being exposed to the other legal systems and structures our immigrant clients interact with, and how their immigration cases interact.